‘In the heart of the Whore’
Captain Dirk Coetzee died yesterday. He was 67 years old – although ten years older than me, he was still my contemporary, a symbol of the South Africa I grew up in. Who is (or was) he, you ask? You obviously do not live in South Africa, or you are blessedly too young to remember the darkest days of Apartheid.
Dirk Coetzee was a policeman. A good policeman, so good that he was appointed as head of ‘Section C 1’, a secret, elite police unit stationed at a farm outside of Pretoria called ‘Vlakplaas’. C1 was to be the governments answer to the terrorist activities of the ANC in their revolutionary war against the Apartheid State. In Coetzee’s own words:
“I was the commander of the South African police death squad. I was in the heart of the whore.”
This was the phrase coined by President PW Botha that would determine the activities of Dirk Coetzee’s unit. It was a hit squad, comprised of rogue policemen and traitors (ANC turncoats called ‘askari’s), whose sole function was the ‘removal from society’ of ANC activists who supported the liberation struggle.
Their modus operandi was varied: kidnap and torture, poison, parcel bombs and assassination. Their most famous victim was Griffiths Mxenge, a human rights lawyer who was abducted and then stabbed and hammered to death. A lesser known target, Sizwe Kondile, became famous because of the way he was eliminated: shot and thrown into a huge fire to reduce his body to ashes, while his killers barbecued meat alongside his funeral pyre.
After four years of killing, Dirk Coetzee turned askari himself. He fled into exile in Tanzania, spilling the beans on his apartheid masters to the ANC head of intelligence at the time, Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s current president. His revelations, printed by a South African newspaper, ‘The Vrye Weekblad’, were the turning point in negotiations between then President FW De Klerk and the ANC. Nelson Mandela’s release followed within months.
Fire with Fire
So what is the point of my post?
Firstly, Dirk Coetzee and the apartheid death squads are central to my novel, ‘MAMUD’, an acronym for ‘Mandela Must Die’. MAMUD’s storyline is of one such (fictional) hit squad operation, the most important one of all: to assassinate Nelson Mandela weeks before his release from prison.
Secondly, and more importantly, I want to ask the question:
‘Was Dirk Coetzee a soldier, or a murderer?’
In the murky depths of a revolutionary, terrorist war, do all combatants have to wear a military uniform to qualify as soldiers? Are those who defend, such as Coetzee, entitled to the same rights as those who attack: ie to kill by stealth? The ANC planted bombs and burned informers to death with petrol-laced tyres called ‘necklaces‘; was Coetzee not entitled to use the same method in opposing them?
Is fighting fire with fire acceptable in war? Is it acceptable in any situation, including our own personal lives? An eye for an eye…? Why was Coetzee labelled a monster, yet little is said of his ANC counterparts? As with all facts, the force of their existence is determined by their context. Truth, along with everything else as proved by Einstein, is relative.
‘A Just War’
Perhaps the key to this conundrum is what the ANC afterwards referred to as a ‘Just War’. They say they were fighting a morally defensible war, albeit by means of terror, against an immoral enemy. Their cause justified the means; Coetzee’s did not. They were the victims of a ‘crime against humanity’, and entitled to use non-conventional means in their struggle against a militarily superior foe.
I know that the South African response to the above will be split mostly along racial lines. It would be interesting to see if the same is true for those who live in other countries. Is there a higher ground for this debate? Who is entitled to make a judgement on this matter, and on what do they base that judgement?
Common law says that if I burn down your house, you are not entitled to burn down mine. If you do, you will be subject to the same punishment as the first burner, and maybe worse. In a rugby match, if an opponent strikes you first, are you entitled to hit him back? No. The rules of rugby are clear: the retaliator is, in fact, guilty of a greater offence than the initiator and will receive the harsher punishment.
Why is hitting back a worse crime than hitting first?
The debate in South Africa continues as strongly today, nearly twenty years after the last blow from either side. It is still the strongholds of the diehards in both camps, unassailable mountain fortresses that neither are able to penetrate. You did that so I did this…Yes, but I did that because you did the other…No, I did the other because I thought you would do another…And so it goes on, all the way back to 1652 when the Dutch first landed at the Cape.
A Civilised Society
So what is my opinion, you ask, as one who has lived through the life and times of Dirk Coetzee.
I am convinced that Coetzee was wrong. I am convinced that apartheid South Africa was wrong. I am convinced that the ANC was, in the end, also wrong. South Africa today is the result of all these wrongs: a society of instinctive violence. A lazy society, where people look for the easy way to settle a dispute or conflict: you hit me, so I will hit you even harder. We have lost the power of rational discourse; we have lost the ability to trust the truth; we have lost what is at the heart of the survival of any society: empathy.
Empathy is the act of placing oneself in the position of another, especially those who oppose or harm us. It is the ability to not react to a wrongdoing, but to rather try to understand its source. It is the faith to trust, not in our own finite strength and abilities, but in the universal power of what is right and fair. It is the supreme indicator of a civilised society and human being. It is the direct opposite of fighting ‘Fire with Fire”, and I am sure Dirk Coetzee realises that now.
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